Bioengineer Tomasz Tkaczyk creating tiny lenses for inner-ear analysis

Rice to help troops hear again
Bioengineer Tomasz Tkaczyk creating tiny lenses for inner-ear analysis

Rice News staff

The Rice University lab of Tomasz Tkaczyk, an assistant professor in bioengineering, is participating in a project to analyze the effects of blast-related hearing loss suffered by American troops in war zones.


Tkaczyk, who directs Rice’s Modern Optical Instrumentation and Bio-imaging Laboratory, will build tiny but sophisticated endoscopes he expects will help find a way to reverse the damage caused to the middle and inner ears of blast victims.

Rice and its partners in the research, lead institution Stanford University and Texas A&M, won a three-year United States Department of Defense grant to study blast-induced hearing loss. The data they develop will ultimately be used to test existing and novel drugs to treat the victims.

Such a project is a natural for Tkaczyk, who develops advanced optical systems for biomedical applications at Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative. In this case, he’ll develop lenses for endoscopes mere millimeters across to work in tandem with optical coherence tomography (OCT) devices being created by Texas A&M.

Endoscopic objectives produced by the lab of Rice Professor Tomasz Tkaczyk are tiny compared to a dime, but new liquid lenses produced as part of a hearing study for the Department of Defense will be even smaller.

OCT is a noninvasive method for visualizing living structures on a microscopic scale. The researchers characterized OCT as being similar to ultrasound devices, except that it uses light waves instead of sound.

The lenses, to be mounted on optic fibers, are expected to provide previously unattainable imaging resolution of the middle and inner ear. “We’ll start by building a static miniature lens and combine it with A&M’s OCT in a system that will be shipped to Stanford for testing,” said Tkaczyk, who expects to start testing the first prototype this summer. “Then we’ll increase system complexity to improve resolution, and then we will follow with a final, tunable liquid endoscope lens.”

Users will control a liquid lens by applying voltage that changes the lens’s shape and thus its focus. Tkaczyk is aiming for a dynamic lens approximately two millimeters wide that will resolve details of the cochlea down to about five microns. The ability to refocus the lens on the fly will allow researchers to extend imaging range and explore the inner ear in great detail.

Tkaczyk’s lab develops novel, inexpensive, compact imaging systems for point-of-care diagnostics, among other uses. Another technology from his lab, a hyperspectral video imaging camera that can provide real-time chemical signature analysis for liquids, solids and live cells, finished second overall in last year’s Rice Business Plan Competition. The technology has been spun off into a Houston company, Rebellion Photonics, which recently won the Houston Technology Center Goradia Innovation Prize.

In preparation for the new project and others, Tkaczyk is gathering all the necessary equipment for what he feels will be a state-of-the-art facility for the design and construction of opto-medical devices. “What we will have at the BRC will be one of a kind among research universities,” he said.

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.